Melancholia: Depression on Film

Melancholia: Depression on Film


A commonly reported symptom of clinical depression is a warped sense of time. Everything can feel like it’s moving in super slow motion In fact, depression warps everything around it, like a star warps space-time. Not only your sense of duration, but also your sense of yourself and others. Your mental life is thrown out of all proportion. In his film “Melancholia”, Lars Von Trier uses skewed proportions to communicate a feeling that he’s intimately familiar with. Lars von Trier: “You know when I write, I can only write about myself,” Lars von Trier: “and this is more or less a description of my own depression.” The very first scene after the slow-motion montage that, speaking of warped time, shows both the end of the film and the end of the world, is the newly-married Justine and Michael trying to get from the ceremony to the reception in a stretch limo that is almost comically too large for the country road that they’re driving on. Eventually they have to abandon the car and walk and by the time they get to the castle where the reception is, half of the night has already been wasted. [I won’t even bother saying how late you are.] What’s interesting is that the viewer doesn’t really feel that lateness—we’re only at the beginning of the film. And this—I think– gives us a hint of the weird, almost dreamlike, temporal quality of the wedding reception to come. One thing that keeps getting stranger and stranger to me as I rewatch the film is the relationship between Justine and Michael. I mean, at times it almost seems as if they don’t even know each other; Michael seems to be completely unaware of the severity of Justine’s depression, and there are a few shots where Micheal just stares off blankly like a kind of dead puppet. Here again, things are skewed—Von Trier doesn’t give us a sense of the couple’s past. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first half of the film is made up of the wedding reception, alternating between the party and Justine’s various exits as she falls deeper and deeper into an oncoming bout of depression. Von Trier uses the reception itself to setup an expectation of continuous time, but Justine’s exits make this problematic. The two parts of the sequence don’t seem to fit together. Justine rides off in a golf cart all the way across the grounds, she languishes in the bath, but the party is always there, always still happening when she returns to it in moods that are increasingly detached. Even within the party time jumps forward at the whim of von Trier’s disorienting editing. The film critic Marta Figlerowicz drew my attention to the fact that — for example — the newlyweds first dance is actually a montage of Justine dancing with a number of people, While the song underneath it – La Bamba, plays continuously. What it all ads up to is unsettling feeling of subjectivity, A feeling that you’re in the head of Justine, and by extension von Trier’s, whose attempts to get a handle on things, to lock everything in place are upset and then finally dashed. No one in the film seems capable
of measuring things correctly, whether it’s the number of beans in a jar, [Two million and six beans] or the correct trajectory of a rogue planet. Everything that’s handled burns, creases or shatters And we ought to mention the several artistic references von Trier makes in the film, any of which are in the very first sequence. The most obvious is this shot which cites John Everett Millais “Ophelia” after the character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who is perhaps the most famous depressive in all of literature. Then we have an actual shot Bruegel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’, a painting of hunters coming back to their village empty handed. Which calls to mind another science fiction film concerned with the depths of the soul: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”. Von Trier is a massive fan of Tarkovsky and there are other similarities here, too. Solaris, for example, makes great use of Bach’s “Choral Prelude in F Minor” repeating it throughout the film and as he’s written, Tarkovsky likes to use music as a refrain. “The refrain brigns us back to our first experience of entering that poetic world, making it immediate and at the same time renewing it.” Von Trier uses the same technique in Melancholia with Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan and Isolde”, a romantic song that speaks to how the filmmaker mixes his meditation on depression with beauty, like a glowing blue planet, and desire. And there are plenty of other references too. Like those to Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” – another film with a dreamlike narrative structure. And of course these early shots jump forward to reference, but not exactly replicate, later moments in the film. Melancholia is no doubt a polarizing film. Its beauty is undeniable, but I’m sure many will argue that it lacks coherence or focus Indeed, I have my own problems with the second part of the film, but this is one of the most striking portrayals—to me— of a disease that affects so many but which is still so little understood. In my view, depression is what happens when your identity —that sense of the relationship you have with the world around you— becomes untethered, unfocused. In this process everything starts to skew. Time slows to a standstill. Your body once so easy to move feels like it weighs a ton. For a person memories start to become disorganized. The memories of a film, on the other hand are all those works of arts that inform and precede it. Perhaps this is why von Trier surrounds his characters with so many. By the time we get to the second half of the film an extraordinary situation—the approach of the rogue planet Melancholia, warps even the character’s dispositions: Justine emerging slowly from the depths of her illness reacts to the existential situation with calm. [the Earth is evil] [We don’t need to grieve for it] Claire on the other hand—her sane other half—begins to panic The film, in the end, takes on the disease of its main character. I, for one, am happy to see a film so earnest about sadness As it stands, science and medicine have come up short in their apprehension of mental illness. So maybe we ought to look to art for insights and solidarity about what it’s like, living a life out of proportion. Hey everybody, thanks for watching Sorry this video is a little bit late, I had a horrible stomach flu yesterday that was just destroying me. I feel much better now and I love this film. You know, i have certain problems with it, but I think there’s so much of value here and I love the opportunity to talk about depression and mental illness through the lens of a film like this. I hope you guys liked it.

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